By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – Victoria Azarenka once was a fixture in the business end of Grand Slams and but for great rival Serena Williams would have more than two Australian Opens in her collection.
From the 2011 French Open until the 2014 Australian Open the Belarussian reached the quarter-final stage at least in 10 Grand Slam tournaments, winning in Australia in 2012 and 2013.
During that period she was a natural adversary for Serena Williams, going toe-to-toe with the American in two classic U.S. Open finals, and finished 2012 as world number one.
Since returning to the game two years ago having taken a maternity break following the birth of son Leo, it has been a struggle for the 29-year-old, on and off the court.
She arrived at Wimbledon having risen back to 40 in the rankings, however, and on the evidence of her first two matches on the London lawns looks destined to go higher.
On Wednesday she powered past Australian Ajla Tomljanovic 6-2 6-0 in little more than hour, having disposed of Alize Cornet in straight sets in the opening round.
The real test of where her game is at will come in the next round when she faces Romanian seventh seed Simona Halep.
Whatever happens on Friday, however, Azarenka thinks the second chapter of her career can be better than the first.
“I still believe I have my best tennis ahead of me,” she told Reuters in the build-up to Wimbledon at the Mallorca Open.
“I know that I’ll get to the point where everything that I’m putting in, will be rewarded. It’s a new step in my career and an exciting one.”
The journey back from motherhood for a tennis player is tough enough, but Azarenka has also had to deal with a drawn-out custody battle for her son with her former partner.
Azarenka, twice a Wimbledon semi-finalist, is on the rise again, though, and while approaching 30, she feels she is playing as well as ever.
“I feel that the average level on Tour has gone up dramatically especially with a lot of young players coming up,” she said. “I don’t compare myself from before because that’s based on results that people see.
“Even in my best years I wasn’t developing as a player but now I am. I’m learning. For sure, I feel much more happy now than before even though the results aren’t the same.”
It is only the third time since returning to the Tour in June 2017 that she has reached a Grand Slam third round and while Halep is a formidable obstacle, Azarenka is relishing a scrap with the player who stopped her in the 2017 fourth round.
“She’s very consistent. I don’t think that she has developed too many different areas. She’s just very solid. We had quite a few entertaining matches. It’s going to be exciting.”
Mats Wilander, the former men’s world number one, is convinced Azarenka will be a force again.
“I’m 100% convinced she will be top 10 again, she is modern in the way she plays tennis and has a big champion’s mindset. She is back for sure,” the Swede told Reuters.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)